Saturday 14 December 2019

Liverpool survive late siege to pull further clear at the summit

Liverpool 2 Brighton & Hove Albion 1

Liverpool’s Virgil van Dijk celebrates after scoring his first goal against Brighton and Hove Albion at Anfield yesterday. Photo: PA
Liverpool’s Virgil van Dijk celebrates after scoring his first goal against Brighton and Hove Albion at Anfield yesterday. Photo: PA

Andy Hunter

Was this the day Liverpool seized control of the title race? No, that was when Manchester City were comfortably beaten here three weeks ago. All that could be said for sure after Brighton were defeated at a surprisingly fraught Anfield is that this was the day the reigning Premier League champions disappeared from Jürgen Klopp's rear-view mirror.

Liverpool went from comfortable to tense against Graham Potter's committed visitors after Alisson was sent off for handling outside his area and Lewis Dunk converted the resulting free-kick. The 10 men held on to a lead given by Virgil van Dijk's two headers, however, to finish with a remarkable 11-point lead at the Premier League summit before the end of November.

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City's draw at Newcastle and the prospect of edging closer to that title were forgotten at kick-off as the game opened with a reminder of what matters most. The crowd, Brighton fans included, rose to their feet as "Justice for the 96" echoed around Anfield for the first six minutes. The Kop was bedecked in Hillsborough banners in response to the latest kick in the teeth for the victims' families, Thursday's verdict that David Duckenfield was not guilty of the gross negligence manslaughter of those unlawfully killed at the 1989 FA Cup semi-final. "Justice delayed is justice denied," read one, just along from another bearing 96 eternal flames.

Admirably, and as always, Liverpool's players remained focused on the task of winning. Klopp has identified his team's refusal to be distracted by title talk or unbeaten runs or hectic schedules as equally important as their outstanding talent in leaving others in their wake this season. It was evident here once more as they parked the emotion in the stands and brushed aside the absence of the injured Fabinho to establish a commanding early lead. A remarkable 13th victory in 14 league games was founded on two precise assists from Trent Alexander-Arnold and two immaculate Van Dijk headers.

Brighton had started brightly, threading their way into several promising situations. They finished the first half strongly too, with Davy Propper forcing Alisson into a decent save and having a second shot from distance deflected wide. Dunk also scuffed a glorious chance wide in front of goal when beating Liverpool's offside trap following a corner. But a lack of concentration and weak defending at two set-pieces midway through the half cost the visitors dear.

The away section protested vociferously when Pascal Gross was adjudged to have fouled Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain deep inside the Brighton half. Their team's failure to track the significant figure of Van Dijk at the resulting free-kick warranted more complaint. Alexander-Arnold floated his delivery towards the corner of the six-yard box. Liverpool's towering central defender rose unmarked between Adam Webster and Dale Stephens to send a looping header over Mathew Ryan.

Virgil van Dijk (right) looks on as his header hits the back of the net to give Liverpool the lead. Photo: PA
Virgil van Dijk (right) looks on as his header hits the back of the net to give Liverpool the lead. Photo: PA

Brighton's goalkeeper saved superbly from Sadio Mane when the striker looked certain to double Liverpool's lead from close range after Oxlade-Chamberlain's shot deflected into his path. Ryan had earlier foiled Roberto Firmino too, and saved cleanly from Oxlade-Chamberlain just before the interval, but was beaten for a second time when his defenders switched off again at a Liverpool corner.

Alexander-Arnold was the provider once more, this time driving his delivery to the near post where Van Dijk escaped Dunk's attentions and steered a header beyond Ryan. It was Alexander-Arnold's 18th assist since the start of last season, more than any other Premier League defender. It was Van Dijk's eighth league goal since the start of last season, more than any other defender, and also Liverpool's 41st set-piece goal in that time, more than any other team in England's top flight.

Liverpool did ease off after the second goal, to Klopp's displeasure, and the nerves would have crept in earlier had Dunk not headed wide when meeting Gross's corner at close range. The Brighton captain denied Van Dijk a hat-trick with a well-timed challenge as the defender shaped to convert. Dunk also diverted an Oxlade-Chamberlain shot wide after Andy Robertson and two other Liverpool players had harried Martin Montoya off the ball near his own corner flag.

Klopp's team looked on course for a comfortable win when a long ball over the top changed the complexion of the contest. Leandro Trossard beat Dejan Lovren to the clearance and, as he attempted to lob the advancing Alisson, the Liverpool goalkeeper handled yards outside his area.

Alisson Becker leaves the pitch after receiving a red card. Photo: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images
Alisson Becker leaves the pitch after receiving a red card. Photo: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Martin Atkinson had no option but to show Alisson a straight red, meaning he will be suspended for Wednesday's Merseyside derby. His replacement, Adrian, was still marshalling his wall when Dunk rolled the subsequent free-kick into an unguarded corner after the referee's whistle.

Anfield was on edge, especially when Adrian fumbled a header from Steven Alzate, but he recovered to save at the second attempt. Liverpool, not Manchester City, were reprieved.

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